On Sunday, Special Master Stephen Burbank issued a ruling in combined cases involving a pair of undrafted free agents signed by the Dolphins in 2009. Both players received small signing bonuses. And both players thereafter quit playing football.
The Dolphins then tried to recover from tackle SirVincent Rogers and tight end Jared Bronson the sum of their signing bonuses: $8,000 and $7,000, respectively.
And the Dolphins lost.
And the league isn’t happy about it.
In a posting at NFLLabor.com, the ruling is characterized as a failure by Burbank “to enforce the players’ contract promises that they freely negotiated.”
“The CBA was never intended to allow players who violate their contracts, commit crimes, or quit on their teams to keep bonus money paid to them in good faith by the clubs, whether it’s $7,000 or much more,” NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said. “This is money that should be available to rookies and veterans who actually perform, but the union has continually sought rulings that allow players who breach their contracts to take the money and run. The illogical and unintended consequences of these rulings are one of the many reasons why the current CBA needs to be changed. We are committed to addressing this issue in our negotiations with the NFLPA and reaching a CBA that prevents these kinds of results in the future.”
It all sounds good. But it overlooks the real reason for the Dolphins’ defeat. At the risk of straying too far into legalese, here’s what happened.
1. The Collective Bargaining Agreement — to which the NFL agreed — significantly restricts the ability of teams to recover bonus money. Under the 2006 CBA, only signing bonus money may be recovered in the event of a holdout or retirement. (The CBA also makes partial forfeitures automatic for suspensions under the steroids policy.) No other bonus money may be forfeited, and signing bonus money may not be recovered under any other circumstances, such as team-imposed suspensions or incarcerations.
2. The CBA plainly states that the forfeiture of signing bonus money for holdout or retirement are not automatic, but that the players and the teams “may agree” to these provisions.
3. The Dolphins, like many other teams, still include broad bonus forfeiture language in their contracts, with a “savings clause” that purports to give the teams maximum forfeiture rights under the CBA if the broad bonus forfeiture language is invalidated.
4. Burbank essentially decided that the bonus forfeiture language is too broad, and that the “savings clause” isn’t sufficient to constitute an affirmative agreement by the players to forfeit signing bonus money in the event of a holdout or retirement.
So, frankly, the NFL is looking to externalize blame for a bad outcome. But if the NFL wants to blame someone, the NFL should blame the lawyers who decided to draft the contracts the way that the Dolphins drafted them.
And instead of complaining about the outcome, Pash and the rest of the NFL’s legal team should be digesting Burbank’s decision and devising a way to secure maximum forfeiture rights under the current CBA — and also to take advantage of any enhanced forfeiture rights that the NFL may secure via the next labor deal.
The league also should be working on its appeal of Burbank’s decision. Then again, the appeal is headed for the desk of Judge David Doty, whom the NFL tried unsuccessfully to have kicked off the case due to allegations of player bias.
As we’ve said in the past, if the NFL liked Judge Doty’s rulings, the NFL never would have made that move.
Finally, Burbank and Doty are the men who’ll eventually decide whether television contracts that pay the owners billions during a work stoppage violate the CBA, essentially drying up the owners’ primary source of revenue for making big-dollar debt payments if a lockout is imposed.